For decades, this writer wondered what he would do if he ever ran into the priest who’d abused him. Then, one day, he did...
By Roger Cox
While standing here waiting for my United flight out of O'Hare, I browse the passenger line, jumping from head to head. Out of perhaps 20 people in front of me, my eyes land on the snow-white, ecclesiastical tonsure of an old man.
Hey, I know that guy! I would recognize that halo haircut anywhere.
That's Brother Leopold. Jesus H. Christ, do I ever know that guy.
And after all this time, payback day is today?
Thirty-five years ago, at my dark and gloomy Catholic monastery school in Kentucky, that innocent-looking bastard in the black suit with the Roman collar was a teaching brother who loved to beat the hell out of his students.
When he cuffed me around, I was just sitting in his class looking out on the morning rain. But instead of opening my religion book for the start of Leopold's class, I slipped my Japanese transistor radio plug into my ear and tuned the dial to 850 AM to catch Dick Biondi's show on WLS in Chicago.
I hit the jackpot. Elvis was crooning “ Are You Lonesome Tonight?”
“Are you lonesome tonight? Is your heart in pain? Shall I come back again? Tell me, dear, are you lonesome tonight?”
And is there a 14 year old in the world who is not lonesome?
In my daydream, I was dancing cheek to cheek with Mimi Knowlton, my sweetheart back in Cleveland. We were on the brink of love, ready to obey our heart's command, when Brother Leopold charged across the room screaming, “ARRRRRGGGGHHHE!!!”
Then a sharp left, and a hard right, then another left -handed smack hit me hard in the face.
Somewhere off in the distance, I heard myself shout, “Jesus, what was that for?”
Brother Leopold stepped around me to move in on Geoff Van Note, the boy seated behind me.
Van Note, a huge football player, stumbled to his feet holding his jaw. When he turned to face the good Brother to see “what the hell is going on,” Leopold punched the big kid in the stomach. Van Note doubled over, puked, slipped in his puke, and then crashed to the floor, pulling his desk down. Books and food flew all over the place.
Was God's work done?
Had the Lord's obedient servant hurt enough people for one day?
Brother Leopold scrambled diagonally across the room cutting through rows of desks to go after Dave Decker. Along the way, the good Brother sent Tim Husted and John A. Gupton sprawling to join their books on the floor.
When Leopold approached tiny David Decker's desk, the room hinted, but only for a moment, that it was going to standup to the child beater.
Leopold cast a scowl around the room that sent all eyes racing to the floor. Then, in one, smooth move, he whipped around and cracked Decker across the mouth with a backhand stroke worthy of Bill Tilden, the tennis immortal.
Blood ran out of David's mouth, down his chin, and dripped onto his white shirt.
The only sound in the room was Brother Leopold's heavy breathing. It was all over now; it had stopped just as abruptly as it started.
We were children, so we didn't really know about sex, rough sex, and its painfully obvious connection to violence.
All of us sat in our desks with our eyes down and our hands folded, unable to stop shaking. To be capable of beating us like this, we thought Brother Leopold must be a really dangerous person.
Some of the boys rushed home in their hearts to hear their mother's sobbing for help from the bedroom or to watch their drunken dad punch mom in the mouth.
Some of the other boys, the lucky ones, their families taught them to look out on a merciful and tender universe. But these boys, too, almost vomited from fear because they had never before experienced anything like this violence—savage, unprovoked, particularly terrifying because of its unpredictability.
The unlucky boys, we knew revenge. Late at night, long after “lights out,” we lay awake dreaming of just how we were going to kill the lousy shit.
I made a big note in my religion book to write directly to H. Carl Brandt, Jr., my father's attorney in Cleveland. Dad says Mr. Brandt is one tough son of a bitch. I will send him to pay a personal call on Brother Leopold.
Before leading us in our daily religious instruction that morning, Leopold paused for a moment to straighten his long, black gown, and to adjust his white collar. He slipped his Spiedel watchband back on, and walked to the head of the classroom to led us in prayer. Another bright, new day of Catholic education was underway.
Brother Leopold was now as calm as the sky on a cloudless day, slipping his watch back on as if absolutely nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. He made only one reference to his violent outburst. “Gentlemen,” he said,” if that is how I treat my favorites, imagine how I will treat the rest of you.”
Then he started our daily religious instruction. If only I could remember what that prick had the nerve to teach us right after beating us up.
And who could I turn to? The one adult in the room had just belted me.
My parents? No help. They were partial to expensive schools where I lived in poverty and fear of the Lord.
Well, Leopold's punches slammed the door to my church.
Life and time teach children to absorb and to forget these ugly events. We are taught to be bigger than the low things that are bound to happen to us.
Move on, sonny. What can you do about it, anyway? Forget it. Your day will never come.
The bad guy is standing right there, not 30 feet away.
The divine moment of the perfect squelch is at hand. And how indescribably delicious this payback is going to be! With glee, I shout, “Hey, Brother Leopold! You vicious son of a bitch, how ya' doin?”
The tonsured holy man keeps his back to me, but he is listening.
“You miserable son of a bitch, I oughta step over there and smack the shit out of you, sort of payback for all the boys in Flaget Hall that you beat up. Should I do that, you miserable shit? Should I come over there and return your favors? Smack you in the mouth until you bleed?”
The passengers in line between the Brother and me step aside.
Brother Leopold turns to face me.
Repulsive and only barely recognizable, blood-soaked bandages protect fresh wounds below his ears and down the right side of his throat. Cancer surgery has scooped the flesh out of his cheeks leaving dark, jagged-edged wounds.
Something else has twisted Leopold's hands shut and clapped his arms to his chest.
The child abuser has grown into a hideous, horror movie monster, some kind of justice.
This old man shuffling toward me is very close to death.
I haven't been inside of a church for 35 years, but I help the wretched bastard to a bench.
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Roger Cox is a writer, actor, and stage director whose career has taken him from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” to Walt Disney Imagineering and beyond. His lives with his wife in Los Angeles, and he's currently working on a collection of short stories about well-heeled drunks and their oddly shaped children.
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